Dream Phone and Playing at Crushing

If you were a pre-teenage girl in the early 1990s you may have come across the game Dream Phone at a slumber party somewhere between Dirty Dancing screenings. This is a boardgame with a pink phone peripheral and a collection of profile cards featuring pictures and information about potential love interests. The objective of the game is to find out who has a crush on you by calling boys who then give you clues as to who the guy is, clues like where he hangs out or that he likes ‘stuff’, then you can eliminate potential boyfriends based on the information they give you until you have deduced “who who who has a crush on you”. It plays a little like Guess Who or a version of Clue where feelings might get hurt but nobody dies.

Why on earth would one be talking about Dream Phone? As an avid reader of all manner of trash romances, frequent weeper at Brief Encounter and gamer I am interested in how games deal with or integrate themes of love, but I’m coming up a little short on references. With a bit of a brain-wrack I remembered this, my first encounter with love in games. Curious if the game still existed a quick internet search revealed an online multiplayer adaptation and a new-fangled physical version of the game complete with mobile phone and enabled text messaging.

I have some pretty vivid memories of this game and my jerk reaction was to label it crap or disposable but that is maybe unfair, maybe not. There are two (possibly three) crucial things might prevent it from being given more serious consideration as a game that explores love, let alone as a game at all: firstly, the romantic themes have love rendered as crush and secondly, the game’s status as a “girly game” or “pink game” (third, it’s not very good?).

The problem with pink

The girly game is problematic, generally and personally. If a young lady, such as I, didn’t need the patronization of pink to get into games then it’s difficult to understand their purpose and appeal.  The criticisms for such games generally being that they reduce gender to a genre, assume girls play in particular ways and contribute to the marginalisation of girls within games culture by reinforcing stereotypes and clinging to crappy clichés.

With these games being designed exclusively to entice different demographics to games there isn’t the supportive, sympathetic contingent in game criticism to give much of a hoot about them, instead these games are met with negativity or dismissed outright. This is not a productive approach, as Rachel Weil, who recently opened the FEMICOM, the feminine computer museum, reminds us. FEMICOM hosts a collection of games for girls because they are a contribution to games culture, are valuable game artefacts and so worth archiving. Describing her motivation for creating the archive the curator says: “I found collectors and journalists describing really unusual and interesting girl games and consoles as “garbage,” “a waste,” “insulting,” and so on. I had a realisation that this entire swath of video game history might eventually disappear from record.” This is an interesting statement on value and speaks to the reasons that something like Dream Phone can’t be worthwhile.

There is also something about the way that Dream Phone is feminine that particularly places it within the category of unimportance, that it is a grossly girly gendered game. Explaining. In her essay Gender, Genre and Excess Linda Williams writes about “body genres”. These are films that elicit emotional and sensory responses from a spectator, for example, tears shed at “tear-jerker”, arousal experienced from erotic films and jumps or repulsion provoked in the viewing of horror. These are the “gross” examples of melodrama, pornography and horror, gross because of their employment of excess and spectacle that excite and affect us.  Williams also sees these as particularly gendered genres in that they are either attempts to affect are mostly geared at women or they represent women in spectaclised states of affect.

While Dream Phone clearly has nothing to do with two of those body genres it represents a grossness similar to that of the melodrama. Thinking about my play experience the game definitely provoked certain behaviours amongst a group of young girls, or at least facilitated exaggerations of existing group dynamics. We all giggled, there was some squealing, plenty of cooing at boys, peer mocking when the arbitrarily “wrong” imaginary boy had a crush on you (and they all seemed to be the wrong one). That this girly game elicits such responses is also significant because the act of play inspires girls to simulate trite and tired typically female, and typically young female, things. Giving girls a game that only offers them to play at liking boys is as patronising as offering them opportunities to play at domestic roles with dolls and houses and cooking. These roles are not biologically determined so the themes for play are a little limiting.

That said the game might also offer the chance for girls to explore emerging romantic feelings and I remember the game being as much fun and silly as it was nerve-wracking because it took issues and feelings I was anxious about and put them in a social situation. The game makes public something that we want to be secret – a crush. And this is the second trivializing element of Dream Phone, the one most important to the theme of this blog, and that is that the romance is framed as a crush.

It’s just a crush

I think we think of the crush as superficial. We think of it as posters of celebrities on a bedroom wall, as youthful and insubstantial, as fleeting, as the nothing before a something. This was certainly not my experience when I was younger. I recall crushes being life or death (in that respect maybe Dream Phone is a lot like Clue) and yet we diminish it as an emotional experience.

The Love Letter is a game that has dealt beautifully with youthful crushes and presented it as young love. This one screen game is set in the corridors of a high school and you control the most popular boy in school who finds a letter with a heart on it in his locker. You only have five minutes until the bell rings for class and five minutes to read it in the busy hallways, with all the students following the popular guy. So you scamper around desperately trying to hide and sneak peaks at the slowly scrolling love letter to find out who your secret admirer is before time runs out. The letter itself is super sweet and self-conscious and if you can get to the end you will find your crush, but you don’t want to get caught with it, that is the fail state. The Love Letter charmingly matches the goals, rules and actions in the game to the anxieties of having a crush.

Anyway, the crush seems like a lovely aspect of love to explore in games and through play because this the way we first play at love when we are young.  The crush is the point of possibilities in love and when we play games we play with possibilities and playing through those possibilities we require states of challenge and anxiety to get our “flow”, the crush has those inherently. The crush can be pure fantasy and we play with those too. Those games that I have mentioned, all both of them, are incredibly effective at representing the crush and affective as play experiences regardless of what value we attribute them as games and the crush as romance. I think I might go have a crush now.



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Dakko Dakko means Hugs Hugs: Love and Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims

Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims is the sophomore adventure venture from the indie developer Dakko Dakko, the guys that last year delivered The 2D Adventures of Rotating Octopus Character. This is a refreshingly different scrolling shooter in which the player controls a God in the clouds and must shepherd a flock of ground-bound pilgrims through perilous plains dynamically splitting their attention between protecting and attacking – an attribute worthy of the coining of the new ‘custody’ genre. The gameworld is reminiscent of Japanese lore and beautifully imagined by Army of Trolls (aka Gary Lucken), the gameplay is fast and fun dotted with ‘awwww’ evoking elements of cute, balanced with a complex and occasionally punishing combo system that will keep the hardcore schump fan sated.

Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims uses a ‘love’ feature, promotes a tenderness towards its in-game characters and comes from an altogether loving place. I had a chat with Dakko Dakko’s Rhodri Broadbent about love and videogames.

RB: I’ve long wanted to make a game about protecting a group of independently moving characters on a long journey, so a pilgrimage was a natural basis. As I was setting out to make a 2D game this time, the pilgrimage theme provided a clear idea for the landscape and the characters. From there it was a fairly natural jump for the game to take some gameplay cues from side-scrolling shooters, whilst shifting the focus away from staying alive, to instead keeping others alive. 

The protection element was fundamental. The player must balance staying near to the pilgrims to be worshipped, whilst venturing forwards regularly to keep faster moving enemies at bay, and this was a cornerstone of the design from the beginning. Worship took many forms through development, morphing into devotion/love as the design progressed.

The game has got a lot of heart(s). This symbol of love is not unfamiliar to players. It is a long established representational convention sometimes signifying health, extra life, your girl friends affection, but generally this is a positive icon that we want lots of. Hearts mean ‘love’ in Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims, you must earn them, collect them, grow strong for your flock.

RB: When thinking about how to raise and lower the player’s speed and strength, I wanted a subtle combo system which allowed skillful players to be rewarded quickly but which still allowed new players to feel lots of positive feedback as they play. I was keen to have the number of surviving pilgrims not just reflect a player’s performance, but also to visually affect the enjoyment of playing well. 

Love, or devotion, fit what I wanted to achieve perfectly. The more the floating cloud god impresses the pilgrims, the more love they throw his way, and as he basks in that love he becomes stronger and more able to defend them. If he is hit, then they are unimpressed and he has to earn their devotion again. 

Love works because when a player has a whole complement of pilgrims jumping and whooping along, hearts flying everywhere, it feels like triumph. The free-flowing love hearts grow larger with every hit, and float towards the player inviting him to soak them up. Conversely when there is just one pilgrim, still jumping and whooping but all by himself, the sense of achievement is mixed with a tinge of sadness at his lonely plight.  

It was really exciting to explore how this cycle can be implemented – should the pilgrims love unconditionally, or should the god have to earn their devotion? Should pilgrims volunteer their love always and everywhere, or should the god have to request worship? Should fewer pilgrims give less love, or should a more desperate situation inspire stronger devotion and worship? As the game evolved we played with many variants, settling on a system which lets the player see the results of a good performance in real time, and to choose when to collect the love and when to let it build. 

There is a more implicit love present in the game too. The oriental aesthetics and mythological monsters are all inspired by the years Broadbent spent living in Japan. Not only is the feel of the landscape much owed to personal experiences there but makes the game into something of an ode to stories and memories of time and place:

RB: I think it’s fair to say that every game I make will be in many ways influenced by Japan. Floating Cloud God as a character was born of my love of the nimble, cloud riding deities on display in ‘Byodo-in’, one of Japan’s most important temples. Our character doesn’t borrow their visual form at all, but the flowing hair and the undulating clouds were all dreamt up whilst staring at these gods.

Furthermore, for much of my time in Kyoto I lived near a street where every shop has its own home-made statue, each based on a different demon from Japanese folklore. These oddball creatures were, and remain, so intriguing and peculiar to me that it made great sense to have my pilgrims march along through their world.

Everything from the disembodied foot, to the one-legged umbrella, to the rolling ball of soil and the mudman all come from hearsay and stories I learned in Japan.

This is not Broadbent’s first flirtation with themes of love as a maker of games. The former Lionhead and Q designer has experience and an approach to love in games:

RB: I’m a ‘mechanics first, theme later’ sort of guy as both player and developer, so I’ve never set out to make a game about love (or any theme) as a priority. Despite that, there have been two interesting examples of involving love in games I’ve worked on. The implementations take very different forms, to very different ends. 

In Fable, the game’s story is steeped in love, loss and revenge, all very serious and actually rather harshly presented. Yet outside of the main narrative, the gameplay uses the AI ‘renown’ system to create light-hearted, largely comical relationships between the player and the townsfolk. There’s an oddly effective juxtaposition between the superficial, entertaining relationships the player is able to strike up through their actions, and the unavoidable, painful plight of the player character in the scripted story.

At the other end of the spectrum, the largely-without-narrative PixelJunk Monsters sees the player protecting his ‘flock’ from the onslaught of creatures marching through the forests. The addition of dependents – of living things to ‘love’ – was absolutely fundamental to the success of Monsters. Tower Defence games are often about protecting abstract areas or bases, but by placing jumping babies outside the player character’s home, we not only provided an effective visual measure of player performance, but crucially a reason for the player to want to perform well. The flock at once provide motivation for the enemies, for the protagonist, and most importantly for the player. 

(Incidentally, I designed for the player to be protecting sheep, at first. Thankfully for all, as the general theme of the game took shape the art lead had better visual ideas and they became obvious relatives of the player character. Though they still bounce a little bit like lambs, I think.)

I therefore feel that love can be a powerful weapon in a game designer’s arsenal, be it as a motivation, as a source of understandable logic or cohesion, as a visual aid or UI element, or as a stepping stone in the design process from which other crucial elements are born (without the addition of the ‘flock’ in PixelJunk Monsters, for example, there would be no ghosts, nor would the scoring system have developed into such a satisfying, rewarding structure).

Broadbent highlights that, from the design end at least, love in games is highly logical and deeply considered, things at odds with love as a human emotion. In Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims the careful construction of love not only motivates the player to perform in the most effective ways through the levels but is implemented affectively also. Positioning players in a caring role, the game encourages attention as much to the status of the player character who is impervious as the fragile and adoring flock below. Their affection spurs you on and their absence is felt as more than a consequence of your error, it is quite emotional to lose your pilgrims because they literally haunt you as the ghosts of your felled followers appear on the end of level screen.  Love isn’t just a theme between in-game characters, the game evokes an affectionate relationship between player and characters.

Floating Cloud God Saves the Pilgrims is available as free love for PlayStation Plus subscribers and in the PSN Store now!


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Love in a Digital World

ImageCan love bloom in a virtual space? And is the concept weird?

We have all heard the stories of couples who met on dating sites, who supposedly fell in love at first email. There was a time when this was a novel idea and sometimes even made the nightly news. But now this is an every day occurrence and most singles (and even some couples) are registered and active members. All seeking love or just connection in the far corners of the globe.

People meet in the strangest of fashions, in the strangest of places. It is human nature that any gathering of people will result in an attraction of some; be it a club, a pub, a concert, or a holiday abroad. It doesn’t matter where or how, throw enough people together and nature does the rest.

With this in mind, is it so odd that, taking the online example further, people can fall in love with an avatar? A chosen visual representation of the self?

World of Warcraft is an online multiplayer game with millions of players, and one where players choose an avatar, choose their facial features, and dress in virtual clothes. They embark on adventures within this online world and meet hundreds of people a day. It can only be expected that some of them will eventually hit it off, as not only are they conversing and co-operating to complete goals, but would have similar interests and world views as evidence by simply playing the game to begin with.

Imagine if you will — alone deep inside an abandoned mine, dark and unfriendly, wrought with hostile creatures, you are seeking that long lost scroll that will provide the missing piece of the puzzle, that last clue to where the legendary bejewelled crown of a once proud king may rest. You become lost, you are injured from too many close battles. All looks grim until, what’s that? A shining light ahead. It drifts toward you, swaying form side to side as if being carried. Is it friend or foe? Salvation or damnation? Hark! It is human, and it is by coincidence that battle hardened warrior you casually waved to on the way in, who was checking his spoils from his own adventure in the mine and looked to be heading to town. Perhaps he did and returned. You can easily lose track of time in the deep places of the earth.

He approaches, offers food and healing, and a friendly voice in the dark. And as you sit together bathed in the glow of a cozy fire, you find that you both enjoy looking for long lost treasures and, gee, wasn’t that last episode of Game of Thrones really something…

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How Designing for Love Can Change the World

Hello GDC! This morning at 10am, dirolab co-founders will join Jane McGonigal, Chelsea Howe, and Michael Molinari in a presentation designed to hit the heart! We’ll talk about how to design for love, and how that can change the world! Come join us!

How Designing for Love Can Change the World
10am West Hall Room 2009

Interested romance scientists can come meet us at 5pm this evening at John Colins to discuss love and romance over drinks.

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How Deep is Your Love?

Zach Gage pointed out this fascinating video of researchers asking people to think about someone they love (or an experience of love) and then run an MRI scan. They stage this as a competition which I think is a bit odd, but the staging of the experiment is super interesting because each participant has such a different way of talking about what love is in the brief interviews.

The Love Competition from Brent Hoff on Vimeo.

It’s also intriguing to me that the participants found the experience so transformative, even being moved to tears. One described a sense of warmth just bubbling out of her; another said he felt like he was in outer space and he could have stayed there for a long time. Imagine being in a small chamber and focusing on LOVE for five minutes!! Is it overwhelming? Is it meditative? One participant said he felt “depleted” by the experience, that he had expended all his love. It seems simply reflecting on someone you love can be a powerful experience.

The brain is still full of beautiful mysteries!




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Don’t Call it a Comeback

Welcome to the new-and-slightly-improved home for the Digital Romance Lab! We decided to use Valentines Day as a nice excuse to do a bit of a soft relaunch. We’ve moved over here to a new blog, which we’ll be using far more frequently than our previous incarnation. You’ll also notice we’ve added a place for us to actually share both our previous, and any future, game experiments.

Oh, we also have a new Facebook fan page. If you like love, please ‘like’ us! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Digital-Romance-Lab/294531253912456

And finally, in order to mark this auspicious day of romance, we’ve also added a few new posts:

Finally, our newest addition is a renewed resolve to continue exploring love, and romance in games. The Digital Romance Lab and friends will be at the Games for Change Summit at Game Developers Conference 2012, speaking on the panel: “How Designing for Love Can Change the World”, moderated by Jane McGonigal, on Tuesday morning. We’ll also be hosting a meetup the Tuesday evening, so do watch this space for more details if you’re interested!

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Well Played Call for Papers: Romance in Games

Welcome to the relaunch of Digital Romance Lab!

Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to reflect on love and romance! And to celebrate today I want you to think on the following: Well Played is doing a special edition on Romance.  Below is the Call for Papers. I urge you all to submit an essay!


CfP: a special issue of Well Played, edited by Jane Pinckard and focusing on the theme of romance in games.

ETC Press is accepting submissions for this special issue of the Well Played journal.

All submissions for v1n4 are due 14 May 2012 (5pm (EST).

Jane Pinckard, co-founder of the Digital Romance Lab (http://www.dirolab.com/), is editing this special issue and encourages contributors to write essays that explore games that engage emotions associated with love, romance and flirting. Topics might include such themes as developing an attachment to an NPC, falling in love in-game with another player, critique of romance subplots, depiction of loving attachments, experiments in making love a core mechanic of a game, and more.

All submissions and questions should be sent to:

drew ( at ) andrew ( dot ) cmu ( dot ) edu

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